Casey Wellman played several sports growing up in Brentwood, Calif., hardly a hotbed for hockey.
But Wellman got hooked on the game played on ice after his father, Brad, met several New Jersey Devils players who asked him to skate with them in Boston.
“Dad didn’t know how to skate, so he was pretty upset about that,” Wellman said with a smile.
But Brad, an infielder for 441 games for three major league teams over eight seasons who later managed in the Houston Astros organization, introduced Casey and his brother, Logan, to hockey, and 31/2-year-old Casey fell in love with his new endeavor.
“I have some vague memories (of his dad playing), but I was pretty young,” said Wellman, whose uncle, Tom Candiotti, is a former major league pitcher known for his knuckleball. “Having pictures of a father-son game is pretty cool, but I haven’t played baseball for a while. It’s a great sport, but at the time, it was just a little slow, a little boring, so I stuck with hockey.”
Despite his West Coast upbringing, Wellman is now surprisingly playing professionally with the Connecticut Whale, who are about 70 miles from where he competed collegiately on the East Coast. When Wellman was on his way to practice with the Houston Aeros last Thursday, he got “a pretty big surprise,” a call that the Minnesota Wild had traded him to the New York Rangers.
“It was definitely pretty crazy, a bit of a shock,” said Wellman, 24, acquired for center Erik Christensen, who had a two-week conditioning assignment with the Whale in mid-January, and a conditional seventh-round pick in 2013. “It was tough to say goodbye because I had some good friends (in Houston), but that’s the business and that’s what can happen and probably won’t be the last time.”
Wellman quickly returned home, packed and headed for Hershey, Pa., where he met his new teammates. Whale coach Ken Gernander put Wellman on a line with All-Star Jonathan Audy-Marchessault and rugged Andre Deveaux, and the trio helped produce a 4-1 victory over one of the AHL’s top teams, including going 5-for-5 on the penalty kill against the league’s top power play.
In his home debut Tuesday night, Wellman again helped on the penalty kill, played the power play and assisted on Blake Parlett’s winning goal in a 3-1 victory over the Syracuse Crunch as the Whale won their third in a row after an 11-game winless streak (0-6-3-2) in January to reclaim first place in the Northeast Division from the idle Bridgeport Sound Tigers.
“I think there’s definitely been a little bit of chemistry, and as we play together more, it’s only going to grow,” Wellman said of the pairing with Audy-Marchessault and Deveaux. “They are two very good players, and there have been a few different plays where we could have been somewhere else. We talk about it on the bench, and we’re just going to learn from it.”
Wellman said the only Whale player he really knew was defenseman Stu Bickel, whom he skated with in the summer but has been on recall to the Rangers since Dec. 18 and a solid contributor, especially in the physical and stick-up-for-teammates department.
“When I got traded, he sent me a text (message) and just said welcome and if I needed anything to let him know,” Wellman said. “(But) there are great guys here, and they’ve welcomed me. Obviously we’ve got two wins since I’ve been here and are now on a three-game (winning) streak, so they’re turning the ship around and now we just have to keep it going.”
Wellman has brought some speed, playmaking and a pretty good shot to the Whale and can play all three forward positions. He had been playing wing but was a center at UMass, so he’s getting re-acclimated to that position “so I can be a solid, two-way player.” But Wellman’s versatility and speed fit in well with the puck-pursuing style that the Rangers and Whale like to play.
“He’s still finding his way, learning the guys and learning the systems, all those types of things,” Gernander said. “But he has picked up two points in two games, and center is an important position where you can always use depth. He’s got decent speed and won a footrace in the neutral zone in Hershey to make a nice play to Audy-Marchessault and eventually to Deveaux (for a goal).
“And he’s good on faceoffs, which are important. Depending on where you are on the rink, it could be from 10 to 20 to 30 seconds if you can win the draw as opposed to losing the draw. If it’s in the defensive zone, it takes time to get possession, break out and enter their zone. And if you look on special teams, if your power play can win a faceoff and start with possession, it’s certainly an advantage as to having a clear-in breakout and gain entry because a lot of times that’s a difficult task. So he does a lot for us and has been a very good pickup so far.”
Unlike former Hartford Wolf Pack left wing Ryan Hollweg, who also grew up in California but went to play in Western Canada in search of better competition, Wellman left home at 14 to attend Cranbrook Kingswood School in Bloomfield Hills, Mich., where he helped win Division III state titles in 2004 and 2006 when the Cranes went 21-5-0 and 25-4-1 in his sophomore and senior years. Though youth hockey in California is improving, there were limited quality teams, so the move proved beneficial for Wellman.
“It was a good fit for me academic-wise and hockey-wise, so I really loved it there (Cranbrook),” he said.
Wellman played two seasons with the Cedar Rapids RoughRiders in the United States Hockey League, getting 30 goals and 39 assists in 118 games in two seasons. Wellman then attended the University of Massachusetts for two years, getting 34 goals and 44 assists in 75 games.
“It was something in my mindset growing up that I always wanted to go to the furthest level that I could and that was playing college hockey so I was really fortunate to get that experience,” Wellman said. “Traveling around all over the place for hockey has been pretty exciting, and I liked UMass a lot. There are a lot of good people there.”
But after his sophomore season, Wellman decided to sign a two-year, free-agent entry level contract with the Wild on March 16, 2010. At the time, he was general manager Chuck Fletcher’s first major college free-agent pick-up and considered the Wild’s top prospect. But after drafting or signing youngsters such as Mikael Granlund, Brett Bulmer, Johan Larsson, Jason Zucker, Charlie Coyle, Zack Phillips and Mario Lucia, the Wild felt Wellman was expendable in favor of a needed veteran presence for an injury-riddled team.
“I still think he’s going to find his way and become a regular NHL player,” Fletcher told the Houston Chronicle on the day of the trade. “But we have a lot of returning forwards next year, and we have six young prospects that are turning pro. I can assure you it wasn’t a case of offering Casey around, but we’ve been working on this for a couple weeks. We tried several different options, and this is what they insisted upon.”
Wellman finished his Wild career with four goals and nine assists in 41 games and had 28 goals and 33 assists in 68 games with the Aeros, including a point-per-game output this season with 14 goals and 12 assists in 26 games. He also helped the Aeros reach the 2011 Calder Cup finals, where they lost in six games to the Binghamton Senators.
A major perk of the trade for Wellman was moving out of the Western Conference, where 6 a.m. flights and lots of travel are commonplace compared to mostly bus rides around the Northeast.
“It’s a little bit different, kind of like when I was in college at UMass, so it should be a little bit better,” Wellman said.
Being back near his alma mater also makes his adjustment to a new team easier.
“I’ve got some good friends around here and might head over to UMass to say hi to a few people,” Wellman said.